Stipulated: the ethics position here has been since long before the Trump years that Presidents should keep their opinions of persons, places, things and events having nothing to do with their duties or responsibilities to themselves.
Presidents are not kings, nor popes, nor universal authorities on everything. They have a role to fill, and they should fill it; it’s not like there should be plenty of time left over for weighing in on such matters as sports, popular culture, celebrities, and local controversies.
President Obama did far more of this than was responsible or good for the country, notably during race-related controversies. President Trump, obviously, has taken this misuse of his position into the stratosphere with his addiction to Twitter. His unrestrained tweets have done him at least as much harm as good; my own guess is that if he eschewed social media, his approval ratings would be 10% higher than they are.
It is also, I think, beyond argument that Trump’s use of Twitter guarantees that future Presidents will also use it to opine on matters that are none of their business. This is not a good thing.
The President’s latest self-made controversy, actually two controversies, came when he tweeted in part last week,
“How bad were the Academy Awards this year? Did you see? And the winner is: a movie from South Korea. What the hell was that all about? We’ve got enough problems with South Korea, with trade. On top of it, they give them the best movie of the year? Was it good? I don’t know? I’m looking for — where? — can we get ‘Gone with the Wind’ back please? ‘Sunset Boulevard.’ So many great movies. The winner is: from South Korea. I thought it was Best Foreign Film. Best Foreign Movie. No. Has this ever happened before? …”
And then he went off on Brad Pitt’s gratuitous crack about John Bolton.
Naturally South Korea was annoyed, and there is no reason in the world to insult an ally over a movie. The President was right, but that’s irrelevant. It is ridiculous to have a best Foreign Film category and then allow a foreign film to win that and the Best Picture Oscar. The Academy Awards are a celebration of U.S. movie-making. I suspect “Parasite” was a political choice because of the film’s class warfare theme.
I saw it; the film was excellent in all respects, but I would never watch it a second time. The film should not have taken the Best Film Oscar from the Hollywood nominees, both on principle and because, at least in my view, several of the other nominated films were better.
The larger controversy over Trump’s tweetstorm about the Oscars came as a result of his choice of “Gone With The Wind” as a classic and preferred model over current day movies. Later this week, at a campaign rally, he clarified what he meant, saying, “What I say is: Make great movies. Not this computerized crap. Computerized garbage.”
That comment is essentially what director Martin Scorcese said earlier this year when he complained about superhero movies. The difference is that Scorcese has standing to opine about the art of movie-making, and the President of the United States does not. But his pointing to “Gone With The Wind” was so predictably provocative that some have wondered if he didn’t use it deliberately to trigger the political correctness police. (I doubt it.)
When I read that tweet, I thought, “Okay, when the inevitable race-baiting comes from the usual suspects, you’re going to have to write about this.” Sure enough, professional race-baiter Michael Eric Dyson went on “The View” to say that Trump’s appreciation of the 1939 classic was more proof of racism, as the ladies on the panel nodded and clucked. The Washington Post was among those in the Trump Deranged media that couldn’t resist weighing in, trotting out historians to tell us that the film was a false representation of the Confederacy, as if that matters in a film or a romantic novel that never pretended to have historical accuracy as its goal.
In fact, because this criticism is such a contrived double standard, let me rant a bit before going back to the film itself.
I have written here frequently about how unethical it is for films that present themselves as historically valid to misrepresent material events and personalities. Such films as “Titanic,” “The Alamo,” “JFK,” “13 Days,” “King,” and “Lincoln” breached this standard, and in my view, recklessly and without justification. In films and stage productions that make it clear, however, that their objective isn’t accurate history but something else (in the case of “Gone With The Wind,” a tale of a fictional romance and an indomitable heroine against the backdrop of the Civil War), critics and historians, except for incurable pedants, keep their cavils to themselves, as they should.
It’s not easy sometimes. I know a lot about Presidential assassinations and assassination attempts, and much as I admire the works of Stephen Sondheim, I can’t stand “Assassins” because it is such terrible history. I was reminded of this today, when “The Ballad of Booth” from that musical was played on the Sirius Broadway channel. The song suggests that there is some great mystery over why John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln. “Was it bad reviews?” the balladeer asks. Booth wasn’t having some kind of psychic break, or shooting Lincoln to compensate for his inability to match his more successful actor brother Edwin. He was dedicated to the cause of the South, and blamed Lincoln, not unreasonably, for the war. Booth regarded his attack on Lincoln (and, in his plan, Vice President Johnson, Secretary of State Seward and General Grant) as part of the war effort, to save the Confederacy. The song and the show pretend that Booth was just another crazy like Charles Guiteau or Squeaky Fromme, and that’s completely false. It also states that Booth was the first one to try to kill a President, and that’s also false.
For the purposes of the musical. however, it doesn’t matter. Oh, it matters to me, but that’s my problem, not Sondheim’s. And anyone who gets their history from Broadway musicals has only himself or herself to blame.It’s the equivalent of getting your news from Comedy Central. And who would do that?
Last I checked, “Gone With The Wind” ranked #4 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Films. That was a while ago; I’m sure it’s been knocked down a few notches since then, but it’s a magnificent movie that tells a fictional story using the viewpoint of characters living in the South before, during, and after the Civil War. No doubt about it, this is a story about a racist society, but racism is not extolled in the movie (unlike another film in the Top 100, “Birth of a Nation,”) nor should the artistic decision to portray the fictionalized world of Margaret Mitchell’s epic romance detract from the film’s many pleasures. Among them is one of the great performances of all time by an African-American actress, Hattie McDaniel’s “Mammy.” In this supposedly racist movie, the smartest, most sensitive, most admirable character is a black woman.
Of course, there is much more to enjoy in David O. Selznick’s dream project: the immortal portrayal of Mitchell’s infuriating, irresistible and protofeminist heroine by Vivian Leigh (and her eyebrow), Clark Gable giving the performance of his career, which considering that career, is something to cherish; the great Thomas Mitchell being great, as always; young Olivia de Havilland ingeniously making a character too good to be true seem believable anyway, deft direction by Victor Fleming (in the same year he directed “The Wizard of Oz”), and gorgeous production values throughout. Being unable to watch a film as important to film and cultural history that is so entertaining in the bargain because one’s need to find racism in every nook and cranny of our past is a malady. In the case of President Trump’s endorsement, the reflex attack on “Gone With The Wind” is just one more manifestation of BIg Lie #4, “Trump is a Racist.”
President Trump admires the movie because it’s a great movie. So do I. So do a majority of film scholars who haven’t allowed progressive bullying and agenda-driven cant to smother their integrity. As for those “resistance” members who feel they have to take every opportunity to bash President Trump no matter how trivial or artificial the offense, I fully endorse what I am certain the President’s reaction is to the outrage of Whoopie and the rest…